The New York Times profiled six minority game developers today on their experiences in the industry. Their anecdotes are both illuminating and depressing.
As a fan, I know how discouraging it can be not to see yourself reflected in the media that you love. A story I often tell is that until I saw Shawn dating Angela on Boy Meets World, the idea that a black woman and a white man could be in a romantic relationship together never crossed my mind. As a young person with no real-life examples to draw on, it seemed like an impossibility.
In video games, the situation is more dire. I see black characters in games infrequently, and black women even less. On top of that, when I point out these discrepancies of representation, what I hear from the culture at large is that they shouldn’t be important to me.
The developers featured in the Times story, headlined “Fear, Anxiety and Hope: What It Means to Be a Minority in Gaming,” are using their games to try to create change for minority gamers. But they are not immune to that lack of support and visibility.
Davionne Gooden told the Times that he started making games shortly after getting his first laptop in the fifth grade. His game, featuring an all-black cast, is about a woman in a coma battling her nightmares. He said that he is hopeful, though he also points out that the issues that he seeks to tackle in his game — the experiences of marginalised people and mental health — are ones white creators rarely think about.
“I’m an optimist,” Gooden said. “I hope that things will eventually be better as a whole.”
Similarly, Mitu Khandakar, a professor at the NYU Games Centre, told the Times: “If you’re a young person of colour playing games, you don’t really see yourself represented. That kind of instills in you this sense that maybe I don’t really belong.”
The feeling of not belonging certainly applies to Dietrich Squinkifer, or Squinky, who said that they burned out at their job at Walking Dead developer Telltale Games after being vocal about issues of race, sex and gender got them labelled as a “troublemaker” at their job. That kind of pushback was not just a facet of their place of employment Squinky told the Times that the threat of harassment from the larger community of gamers is ever looming.
“I think that’s part of the reason a lot of my focus in my work has gone more toward more experimentality, installation and performance art, following more of an art world tradition,” Squinky said. “I am to some degree scared of creating something that will get popular enough within the video game world community that it does receive that kind of backlash.”
The rejection from the community at large is part of why Julian Cordero does not call himself a gamer, despite being a person who develops video games. His game, made with fellow developer Sebastián Valbuena, is called Despelote, and is about playing pickup games of soccer in city parks in the developers’ hometown of Quito, Ecuador.
“With Despelote, Mr. Cordero is trying to use soccer to reject the competitiveness of gaming, which he believes engenders the misogyny and consumerism that have been endemic to the culture,” reads the article.
Reading all these quotes can make it easy to give up hope. It’s hard to struggle, even harder when you feel that you are alone. But to round out these interviews, the Times spoke to Aziza Brown, founder of Dynamik Focus, an esports team. She says that she finds the support she needs in real-life communities.
“I had a talk with a woman in gaming, where I was like, please come to the offline communities, come to other places, because once the anonymous barrier is gone, you can see the person to their face, you can confront them, that behaviour stops,” she said.